A new book shines a light on male prostitution and the findings are surprising.
Sex work is an industry primarily associated with women. When male sex workers are thought about, it’s usually through the prism of health studies or debate around the legality of their behaviour; they become statistics, or shadowy carriers of disease. Media reports focus on street workers lurking around public toilet blocks, perpetuating stereotypes of reckless, preying behaviour.
The idea young, attractive men might choose to work as escorts because they find it enjoyable, it pays well, and introduces them to people and places they might otherwise never experience is, for many, hard to comprehend. But a new book, Male Sex Work and Society, edited by Australian academics Victor Minichiello and John Scott, seeks to disband the many misapprehensions surrounding male sex workers, the clients they serve and the industry in which they work.
‘‘The male body has become an object of consumption, and as a result the idea of men selling their bodies for sex is becoming increasingly acceptable.” John Scott
First, though, a few perhaps unexpected facts about male sex workers. First: they are young. In Australia, most male sex workers are 20 to 30 years old. According to their online profiles, many of which feature photos, they are fit, keen on body building, good-looking, have a habit of being called Jake and more often than not have brown hair and brown eyes.
Second: the clients they serve are predominantly middle-aged, straight-identifying married men.
Third: a growing number of male sex workers have female clients, often highly paid businesswomen who, to paraphrase one interview featured in the book, are bored of dreadful, drunken Saturday-night sex and do not mind paying for no-strings-attached encounters with attractive, skilled escorts.
Fourth: successful male escorts can build international reputations that allow them to travel from country to country, with bookings in each city they visit. You can find them, and read customer reviews of the services they offer, online.
Fifth: street workers represent a tiny portion of male sex workers. While some work in brothels, most work independently, sourcing clients through online escort sites. This allows workers to avoid paying brothel owners hefty commissions, while also enabling them to avoid police regulation and prosecution in countries where sex work is illegal.
Sixth: in Australia, rates of STDs among sex workers are lower than in the general population.
For Scott, from the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology, central to the book’s focus was marking a shift away from a pathological representation of male sex workers as “deviants” or “crazy”, instead emphasising that most men make rational decisions to enter the sex industry well aware of the risks and benefits the job entails.
The authors also sought to present sex work in a way that did not focus solely on criminality or sexually transmitted diseases. Instead, the book paints a complex portrait of its subjects: their day-to-day experiences, the ostracism and marginalisation they face from both mainstream society and the gay community, and the way digital technology has changed the face of their work.
Scott says most previous research on male sex workers was drawn from interviews conducted in healthcare facilities or jails, which provided “a very narrow representation” of their lives and experiences.
As sex work has moved online, opportunities to access a more diverse sample of people has become possible, providing more accurate and detailed data.
“Technology has seen a huge shift in both male and female sex industries. Mobile phones allowed the escort market to expand and enabled greater flexibility; street work began to vanish and sex workers came to rural areas for the first time.”
Technology has also enabled researchers to map where sex workers live and work. Says Scott: “Sex workers don’t just work in communities with large gay populations. Cities with large male sex worker communities often had barely visible gay communities. Most clients are straight-identified.”
The book is at its most engaging when quoting the workers themselves. They talk about their pimps, their good clients, their bad clients, the sex they perform and their relationships.
Says a “money boy” from China: “Being a [money boy] is a platform, an opportunity … You can get a lot of experiences, money, and get to know a lot of people.”
Reports a sex worker in London: “My friends went out on the weekend, went to saunas, met people, did it for nothing. I thought, ‘F— it, I’ll get paid for it’. It was that simple … How did I start? Somebody messaged me on Gaydar [a gay dating website], and, I wasn’t really interested. And then they turned and said, ‘I’ll pay you for it’ … And I enjoyed it. I get a buzz out of being paid for it, because I would normally do it anyway. “
For Scott, a starting point for the book came from examining the way depictions of masculinity have changed over the past 20 years. “If you look in magazines and newspapers 20 to 30 years ago, the focus was on women and women’s bodies, but there’s been an increasing focus on men and male bodies. The male body has become an object of consumption, and as a result the idea of men selling their bodies for sex is becoming increasingly acceptable.”
In Australia, Scott’s research into male sex work drew from the online profiles of 258 escorts and examined a range of attributes, including body type, race and preference for sexual positions.
He says the Australian market closely mirrors that of the US; men with “rugged, active, dominant” physiques command a premium, although the market is still diverse. One escort markets himself as “Arab meat”, another as “hot chocolate”, another still as “pudgy and cuddly”.
Scott likens viewing the profiles to surveying a restaurant menu in which everything from penis size to body weight is detailed, but he says there is still a surprisingly large demand for the “boyfriend experience”, indicating in many instances companionship is just as important as sex. He says the skill set of escorts working in Australia is impressively diverse: “To succeed, these young men need to be skilled negotiators, small business operators, engaging conversationalists and fit, active and appealing.”
A central focus of the book is the variable nature of masculinity in different parts of the world; the performance of machismo in Brazil, say, juxtaposed against the acting out of hyper-masculinity in North America and Northern Ireland. The book provides diverse snapshots of how male sex work has evolved to accommodate and support traditional gender roles, as well as nurturing its own hierarchy of racial stereotypes: the sexually aggressive African-American, for example, or the feminine, submissive Asian.
In countries where male sex work is legal, such as Australia, men are more likely to identify as escorts, view their job as a profession and thus assume a level of professional conduct, principally safe sex.
Greater risks emerge when young men, such as Roma youth moving from their poverty-stricken villages in Romania to Germany to find work, get into sex work with minimal education and awareness. “These men can be very vulnerable,” says Scott. “Public health messages in the past have focused on gay men, but often these men identify as straight – they have wives and children at home – so they think I’m not gay, so this isn’t relevant to me.”
Others still do not identify as men who have sex with men. “They might perform fellatio, but don’t recognise it as sex: ‘Bill Clinton doesn’t think it is; why should I?'”
This distinction between sexual identity and the performance of sex becomes a fascinating aspect of the book. Says Scott: “If you look at studies of male sex work in the 1950s and ’60s, researchers would interview these young male street workers, often in gangs and considered delinquents, and they would say: ‘I’m a straight guy, but I have sex with these gays to make money’.”
This paradox led to a conception of male sex workers as pathological and irrational – they’re straight but they have sex with men, so they must be mad. Their clients, on the other hand, were regarded as perverts coercing innocent men into unsavory acts. This changed in the 1980s with the arrival of gay liberation and HIV, says Scott. “All of a sudden, you start to have sex workers saying: ‘I have sex with men and I’m gay’.” But it’s taken the social sciences a while to catch up; it’s not until fairly recently that a more liberal understanding of sexual identity has been adopted. Rather than sexuality being viewed as a fixed and immovable, it is now recognised as highly fluid throughout the life course.
One of the book’s most interesting chapters examines male sex work in China, juxtaposing the contemporary view of “money boys” as lowly, immoral and ignorant against the revered and celebrated place of male concubines in the courts of ancient China. Written by Travis Kong, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, it gives voice to a group of young men trying to negotiate both their sexuality and the strict dictates of the Chinese legal system.
Kong charts the movement of men from rural Chinese villages to the booming cities, looking for jobs and finding that as rural workers they were subject to a punitive hukou (household registration system) that places them on the bottom of the heap in terms of their entitlements to housing, healthcare and education.
Entering sex work enables them to subvert the system, earning higher wages than a lowly factory worker.
While sex work is illegal in China, and sex workers face police beatings, raids and prosecution on a daily basis, Kong finds several who speak positively about their new-found sexual freedom, the ability to make sizeable amounts of money and the hopes they have of opening a small business when their days as a sex worker are over.
A growing phenomenon is the number of Hong Kong businesswomen travelling to China to buy sex. These unmarried women aged 30 or older – known pejoratively as “leftover women” – are marginalised in Hong Kong society, says Kong.
Male Sex Work and Society also insightfully captures the positive feelings clients have towards the sex workers they hire, with many claiming escorts have enabled them to explore their sexual identities. Says one client: “I discovered a side of my personality that I didn’t know existed. And I discovered that I love to be sexually dominated by another man. For a long time, I was in relationships with women and had what I would call ‘traditional sex’, but somehow with time this stopped working for me.”
An Australian businesswoman has different reasons: “For a few years now, I haven’t had any time for relationships. I’m a workaholic, I love my career … and I wanted sex and nothing more, no strings attached. I wanted someone … who knows women in and out. I wanted to feel that it was all about me and my pleasure.”
For Scott, research into clients, particularly female clients, presents the next intriguing challenge, one that could potentially “reveal a great deal about gender, sexuality and the changing power and sexual relationships between men and women”.
Male Sex Work and Society, edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott (Harrington Park Press) $50.
by Liza Power
Source – Brisbane Times